he Salt River Project (SRP), founded in 1903, provides water and power to over 1 million customers in the Phoenix, Arizona, metro region, including both agricultural and urban water users. Cheryl Zittle is the senior director of water services for SRP. She oversees delivery operations, engineering, information technology, construction and maintenance, and customer service, as well as accounting and contract administration for water. As of 2019, Ms. Zittle is also the president of the National Water Resources Association (NWRA), a federation of state associations and caucuses representing a broad spectrum of water supply interests.
In this interview with Municipal Water Leader Editor-in-Chief Kris Polly, Ms. Zittle discusses her career at SRP, her current work, and her advice for aspiring water professionals.
Kris Polly: Please tell us about your background.
Cheryl Zittle: I was born and raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, and stayed in my hometown. My high school offered a cooperative office education program that collaborated with the SRP to help students gain experience. That is how I began my career at SRP. I love working at SRP, as it provides great opportunities to explore various interests within the utility business.
One particular interest of mine was finance. I had the opportunity to begin my career in the water department as a financial analyst. This position allowed me to learn more about the budget process, operations and maintenance, and the amount of resources it takes to operate and maintain SRP’s irrigation district. It piqued my interest, and I never left.
I continued to learn and develop in the water area, mostly in operations. Throughout my tenure, I have managed water scheduling, field customer service, accounting, and warehousing. Eventually, I progressed to my current position as senior director of water services.
Around 2005, I became more involved in the policy realm, which is how I got interested in NWRA.
Kris Polly: Would you please tell our readers about SRP and what it does?
Cheryl Zittle: As a community-based, not-for-profit water and energy company, SRP acts in the best interest of the people it serves and strives to help build a better future for Arizona.
Today, SRP is one of the nation’s largest public power utilities. We provide electricity to approximately 1 million retail customers in a 2,900-square-mile service area that spans three Arizona counties, including most of the Phoenix metropolitan area. We are an integrated utility, providing generation, transmission, and distribution services, as well as metering and billing services.SRP’s water business is one of the largest raw-water suppliers in Arizona. We deliver about 800,000 acre-feet of water annually to a 375-square-mile service area and manage a 13,000-square-mile watershed that includes an extensive system of reservoirs, wells, canals and irrigation laterals.
Kris Polly: How many years have you been with SRP? Cheryl Zittle: I have been with SRP for 35 years.
Kris Polly: What is your current position there?
Cheryl Zittle: I am senior director of Water Services. This includes maintenance and operations of the district, which is 248,000 acres in size, and includes around 270 wells, 131 miles of canals, and 1,300 miles of laterals, and employs 72 zanjeros (ditch riders). Additionally, we have a water contact center available 24/7 for our water customers. Water services also maintains shareholder accounting and includes information technology and engineering support for the water group at SRP.
Kris Polly: What are some of the most important things you have learned throughout your career with SRP?
Cheryl Zittle: SRP has a rich history. It has been around for more than 100 years and has been an integral part of the growth and development of the greater Phoenix area. As a born-and-raised Arizonan, I grew up among the very systems I manage today.
As my first assignment in water was in financial analysis and budgeting, I came to understand how SRP’s resources fit together to operate and maintain the organization. While finance and budgeting may seem boring, it provided me with a great opportunity to understand how those numbers fit together. The overview of the organization that I gained has been beneficial.
Kris Polly: Have you had any formative mentors during your career?
Cheryl Zittle: Absolutely. One was a superintendent who ran operation-maintenance construction in the half of our territory north of the Salt River. I had an assignment during which our paths intersected. He recognized that I was interested in further career development and asked me the questions that led me to my first management job. Working alongside him allowed me to gain a wealth of knowledge regarding water operations. There was also another person who recognized my interests and afforded me the opportunity to get involved in the NWRA. Our relationship continues to this day.
Kris Polly: What advice do you have for others, especially young women who are interested in water?
Cheryl Zittle: Oftentimes we may not articulate what we want. It is important to be heard and seen. Do not turn down any opportunities. A personal example of this dates back to when John Sullivan (then the associate general presidency of the NWRA. He was looking for someone in the organization to help with general duties in support of his new position. When he asked for volunteers, I think that only one other person beside me volunteered. As luck would have it, he chose me. This was a wonderful opportunity, because it allowed me to work with him and others on a national scale. My advice to everyone is never to turn down an opportunity because you think it would not be a good fit. You are turning down a tremendous learning experience. Never turn down opportunities—take them, embrace them, learn from them.
Kris Polly: Given that SRP is one of the largest water and power providers in the West, you bring a unique perspective to leading the NWRA. What is one of the most important things you think the NWRA can do for water providers and for the western water community in general?
Cheryl Zittle: As resources are shrinking, our challenge will be to accomplish more with less. We need to find ways to bring people together to solve issues in creative ways. It could be through partnerships to find other funding sources. The NWRA could be the thing that brings everyone together. We all have connections. Getting people together is key. That will become more apparent moving forward. Through those connections, the NWRA can be the bridge that brings more states together to solve common interests.
I think my biggest takeaway from attending NWRA meetings has been realizing how many common interests and issues the membership shares. When you are working at a single district, it is easy to get caught up in your own issues, but at the NWRA, you discover a network of people you can discuss those issues with.
Kris Polly: Is there anything you would like to add?
Cheryl Zittle: I look forward to working with everyone. I think this next Congress is going to be an interesting challenge, and it is going to take everyone working together to progress.